A rezoning allowing for a massive new real estate development in East New York that would include 11 residential buildings with more than 2,000 apartments passed a key City Council test Thursday, with support from a local representative best known for his oppositional stances.
Councilmember Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn), an avowed socialist and frequent opponent of rezonings, backed the plan for Innovative Urban Village after years of negotiations with the developers — an unyielding stance that he says resulted in a project with solely affordable units for the overwhelmingly Black and Latino, working-class neighborhood.
The plan, as initially envisioned by Gotham Organization and the Christian Cultural Center, a megachurch in Starrett City that owns the land, originally proposed rentals for residents making between 30% and 120% of the New York City region’s area median income — currently anywhere from $40,000 to $160,000 for a household of four.
But after community feedback and negotiations with Barron’s office, the developer brought the income limits down to between 30% and 80% of the median income, or between $40,000 and $106,000 for a family of four. According to 2019 data compiled by the Furman Center, the local community district’s median household income was $48,000 and more than half of the area’s households earned incomes that would qualify.
The proposed project on what is currently a parking lot and otherwise vacant land would also include a trade school, a grocery store, a day care, and four acres of open public space.
Barron, a former Black Panther and a longtime adversary of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party establishment, said the project should set an example for other City Council members with proposals for large developments in their districts, as well as the Adams administration, about how to get to “yes” without rubber-stamping projects with rents beyond what local residents can afford.
The same Council committee also unanimously approved another large rezoning, known as Innovation QNS, following lengthy negotiations with local Astoria Councilmember Julie Won (D-Queens), who had initially raised objections to what she called insufficient affordable housing.
The $2 billion project is slated to bring nearly 3,000 apartments to an area near Northern Boulevard, about one-third of which are categorized as affordable.
The project is backed by building workers’ union 32BJ SEIU and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who ridiculed Won as she held out, citing concerns that the arrival of luxury units will exacerbate gentrification in the area.
In a statement, Won explained her apparent change of heart by pointing to “wins” including an increase in affordable units that her team had secured — though those modifications appeared to fall short of the 55% affordable threshold she had initially demanded.
“We’ve been negotiating daily to secure unprecedented levels of affordability for my immigrant and working-class community,” Won said, adding that she was “finalizing negotiations for commitments from the developer and the Mayoral administration.”
In effect, she let the project proceed through the subcommittee, which is where other lawmakers usually defer to the desires of the local council member, prior to receiving a firm, written commitment.
“As the council member, I will utilize every accountability measure to ensure that our community wins are actualized,” Won continued.
Barron, speaking about the East New York project, encouraged council members not to settle for half an affordable loaf in projects that need their approval.
“I keep telling them, ‘Go for 100% affordability, affordable to the income level of the income band in your community,’” Barron told the THE CITY. “We have all these projects that people say, ‘Oh, I got 30% affordable or 25%.’ That means you have 70% market. In this one here, there’s no market rate.”
Council members have leverage, he pointed out, because of “member deference,” New York City’s longstanding but increasingly controversial practice in which the majority of the Council follows the wishes of the member who represents a given district with projects up for rezoning.
“The City Council has the power. No matter what the mayor wants to do — wants to give breaks to his real estate and people who fund him and whose music he’s dancing to on Wall Street — the mayor can’t do no rezoning,” said Barron. “The mayor can’t even get a bill passed. Matter of fact, 34 votes on a bill and we override a mayoral veto.”
Tale of Two ‘Innovations’
Barron’s “yes” vote for what he calls a “100%” affordable project comes after months of high-profile clashes across the city in which the Adams administration and pro-development forces, pointing to the city’s housing crisis, have pushed lawmakers to green-light more, bigger projects.
In October, City Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez (D-The Bronx) abruptly came out in favor of a development proposal in Throggs Neck after promising residents for months that she was against it. Her reversal allowed for the building of hundreds of new apartments there, a victory for Mayor Adams and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams.
In June, developers withdrew an application to build a 915-unit high-rise development in Harlem after Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan (D-Manhattan) lambasted the project, which, despite repeated concessions, never made it past 50% non-market units.
Richardson Jordan faced criticism from some elected officials and pro-development groups, who pointed to the likely alternatives on offer for the site.
“The site will indefinitely remain as is — a vacant lot, an abandoned gas station, and a small amount of single story retail. If the owner of the property proceeds with development under as-of-right limits, it will likely become a self-storage facility,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine at the time. “The desperate need for additional affordable housing in Harlem, and citywide, is getting ever more acute.”
Barron was one of the most prominent Council allies to Richardson Jordan, a fellow Black socialist, calling her a “she-ro” for standing up to the “arrogant” developer, as The Amsterdam News reported.
For the project in his district, however, Barron said that A.R. Bernard, pastor of East New York’s Christian Cultural Center and one of the forces behind the development, was someone he could work with.
“He’s far more conservative. I’m far more radical. He’s far more capitalist. I’m socialist. So we’re on very different sides of the spectrum,” Barron said. “But the bottom line, I don’t care who comes before me or what your politics are, you’re going to make housing affordable for our people.”